Following Republican gains in 2010, the partisan breakdown of the nation’s attorney general offices is closer than it has been at any time in recent memory. Now, as the 2011-2012 election cycle gets under way, a majority of the 13 contests to be held over the next two years look like they will be competitive.
The campaign season isn’t fully under way yet. In fact, in many cases, the list of challengers is still a matter of speculation. As a result, these ratings only offer a baseline assessment.
That said, Governing is placing six of the 13 races to be held over the next two years in the tossup category. They include four Democratic-held seats (Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana and West Virginia) and two Republican-held seats (Pennsylvania and Washington state).
We rate three other contests in the slightly less competitive lean Democratic category -- Louisiana, Missouri and North Carolina. These three states all have Democratic AGs at present.
The four remaining contests in 2011-12 are looking strong for the incumbent party -- Utah and Indiana for the Republicans, Oregon and Vermont for the Democrats. So the nine races rated tossup or lean Democratic could tip the overall balance of AG seats between the two parties.
That balance is currently 26 seats held by Democrats and 24 by Republicans, down from a 32-18 Democratic lead prior to Election Day. The GOP gained a net of six seats in 2010, with seven chambers shifting to the GOP -- Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wyoming -- and one, Hawaii, shifting to the Democrats.
It is premature to offer an overall range of possible gains for the cycle, not just because of the campaign’s early stage but also because so many of the races are rated tossup at this point. It’s also likely that a lot of our ratings will shift in the months ahead as top-tier candidates jump into or out of the race.
Still, Democrats can expect to be playing more defense than offense this cycle. Of the nine races we rate as competitive, the Democrats currently hold seven of them.
The 2011-12 races will be the second competitive cycle in a row for Democrats. The GOP scored numerically impressive gains in 2010, though it’s worth noting that most of the GOP victories in 2010 amounted to securing the AG office in states where Republicans had already achieved dominance in most statewide posts.
Only in one swing state, Ohio, did the GOP flip an attorney general seat. Another competitive state, Maine, saw its AG post flip, but it was the indirect effect of voters ousting the Democratic Legislature, which names the attorney general.
A silver lining for Democrats was that they managed to hold on to a number of AG offices in states even as they lost the governor’s race, including the swing states of Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.
Factoring in big-picture political dynamics will be crucial for understanding the 2011-12 landscape.
The three races slated for 2011 -- in Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi -- are all Democratic-held seats in states that have become heavily Republican in recent election cycles. The key question going forward is whether the state’s three incumbent AGs -- Jack Conway, James (Buddy) Caldwell and Jim Hood, respectively -- have amassed enough popularity to buck the strong partisan headwinds in their state. (In Governing’s recent gubernatorial handicapping of the 2011-12 cycle, the governorships of Louisiana and Mississippi were rated safe Republican while Kentucky’s was rated tossup.)
Incumbent Democrats can also expect to face challenging political environments in Missouri, Montana and West Virginia. If Republicans can run the table in states such as these and the three states voting in 2011, then the GOP could take a commanding national lead in the control of AG offices -- an important prize, considering the powers of AGs to use suits to challenge laws (such as the new federal health care law) and to negotiate multistate legal settlements.
The main opportunities for Democrats in 2012 are Pennsylvania, where the former Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett won the governorship in 2010, and in Washington state, where Republican Rob McKenna is considered a likely candidate for governor in 2012, requiring him to yield his seat in a Democratic-leaning state.
In all, 43 AG offices are popularly elected. The remaining seven are appointed by a governor, the legislature or the state Supreme Court.
Of the 43 elected seats, the Democrats currently control 22 offices to the Republicans' 21 -- an even narrower lead for the Democrats than for AG seats as a whole.
There’s one additional factor that could play a significant role in some AG contests this cycle: the presidential race. The Democrats are hoping for a large turnout to support President Barack Obama for a second term, echoing the one that initially elected him in 2008. That could benefit Democrats running in Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Washington state.
This is the fourth cycle in which the author has handicapped attorney general races, having done so previously for Roll Call, Stateline.org and Governing.
Here are thumbnail sketches of the 2011-12 AG races:
Utah (Republican-held). Even before undergoing treatment for stage 3 colon cancer this winter, Republican Mark Shurtleff sent mixed signals about whether he was planning to run for a fourth term as attorney general in 2012. If his health precludes another bid -- or if he recovers and seeks another office instead -- the Republicans will still be in good shape. The Democratic bench in Utah is so weak, and the Republican bench is so strong, that it’s hard to imagine a Democrat running and winning.
Indiana (Republican-held). First-term Democratic Attorney General Greg Zoeller gets high marks for his tenure in office so far. Just as important for his reelection prospects, the Democratic bench is pretty weak in the Hoosier state, with the open gubernatorial contest first drawing the best and brightest Democratic candidates the state can offer. For now, Zoeller looks secure.
Mississippi (Democratic-held, 2011 race). In 2011, the Mississippi GOP will be gunning for two-term Attorney General Jim Hood -- the state’s only remaining Democratic elected statewide official. Unlike his fellow Democratic AG in neighboring Louisiana, James (Buddy) Caldwell, Hood did not join Republican AGs in their suit to overturn the Democratic-backed health care law, which only gives the GOP extra ammunition for rallying the base. A possible GOP contender is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
Kentucky (Democratic-held, 2011 race). If Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway hadn’t run for Senate in 2010, he’d probably be in a stronger position to win a second term. But Conway -- a onetime rising star despite facing a tough environment for Democrats in the Bluegrass State -- ran an ad targeting Republican Senate nominee Rand Paul over an alleged college prank involving a mysterious deity known as “Aqua Buddha.” The ad backfired, not only hobbling Conway’s chances of winning the Senate race (he lost by double digits), but also attracting criticism from liberals as well as conservatives. Conway now has less than a year to refocus voters back on his record in office. One GOP hopeful has joined the field so far, Hopkins County Attorney Todd P’Pool. In addition to his unusual name, P’Pool is little known, and lives in a key area of western Kentucky. As a Republican, he could benefit if the race revolves around federal issues. Another possible candidate is Joseph Lambert, who previously spent 21 years on the state Supreme Court, including a decade as chief justice.
Montana (Democratic-held). If he runs again, first-term Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock would likely be the favorite to win reelection. But Montana has an open gubernatorial seat in 2012, as Democrat Brian Schweitzer is term-limited out, and Bullock is considered the strongest Democratic candidate. If he leaves to run for governor, the GOP would likely have the edge in the AG race, given recent partisan trends in the state. Potential Democratic successors include former state Sen. Jesse Laslovich; former state auditor John Morrison; and Cascade County Attorney John Parker, who ran for AG in 2008. The GOP field could include state Sen. Jim Shockley; Tim Fox, a Helena attorney who lost to Bullock in 2008; and former state House Speaker John Mercer. Given the uncertainty of what Bullock will do, we’re keeping this race at tossup for now.
West Virginia (Democratic-held). Five-term Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw is a populist and something of a legend in West Virginia, a politician who’s been repeatedly and aggressively targeted by business groups for allegedly having too close ties to plaintiffs’ attorneys. If McGraw seeks a sixth term -- he’s now in his mid-70s -- he’ll no doubt face a tough and well-funded challenge once again. His Republican opponent from 2008, attorney Dan Greear, appeared to take himself out of any future run for office after narrowly losing a race for circuit judge in 2010. Possible Republican candidates include Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants and Hiram Lewis, who ran for AG in 2004 and 2008. If McGraw steps down, Democrats could turn to Carte Goodwin, who was appointed to briefly succeed the late Robert Byrd in the U.S. Senate; state Sen. Corey Palumbo; or Chief Deputy Attorney General Fran Hughes.
Pennsylvania (Republican-held). No Democrat has won the attorney general's office in the Keystone State since it became an elective position three decades ago. But with Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett winning the governorship last November, the contest in 2012 is too unsettled to handicap with any degree of certainty. Much depends on whether the appointee to fill the remaining two years of Corbett’s term is a strong candidate -- and if they run for a term of their own in 2012. Despite the Democrats’ historical inability to win the office, Pennsylvania has been increasingly friendly to Democrats -- 2010 being the exception -- and Democratic candidates should do better in a presidential year. In addition, the party has a strong bench that includes former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham, recently defeated U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy and Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. Until the race settles down, though, we’re leaving it in tossup.
Washington state (Republican-held). Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna would be a strong favorite for reelection in 2012, but he’s expected to run for governor instead, leaving a wide-open race to succeed him. The leading GOP contender is Reagan Dunn, currently a King County councilmember and the son of former Republican U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn. The Democrats have a deep bench, with the field potentially including King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith and Jay Manning, chief of staff to Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire. This race could eventually shift in the Democrats’ direction, but there’s enough uncertainty now that we’re keeping it in tossup.
Missouri (Democratic-held). First-term Attorney General Chris Koster is a Democrat, but he’s also a former Republican who’s generally taken a moderate approach that’s consistent with voter preferences in the Show-Me State. The GOP has been on a roll in Missouri in recent election cycles, so they are likely to put up a serious challenger. But until a leading challenger emerges, we’ll give Koster a slight edge.
Louisiana (Democratic-held, 2011 race). In a state that has gone heavily Republican in recent elections, James (Buddy) Caldwell presents a significant target for the GOP in 2011. And Caldwell will be facing a GOP headwind at the top of the ticket in 2011, as popular Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal seeks a second term. In preparing for his reelection bid, Caldwell has moved to the right, even becoming the only Democratic AG to sign on to the Republican suit that challenges the health care reform law. There’s even speculation that he might switch parties -- hardly a rarity in Louisiana, most recently done by a batch of Democratic legislators. Observers say Caldwell’s canny political positioning has left him reasonably comfortable, though a top-tier challenger would make it a tough race.
North Carolina (Democratic-held). Despite North Carolina’s growing Republican lean, Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper has won three terms, and is the favorite for a fourth. Long discussed as a prospect for higher office, Cooper is best known for dismissing the Duke lacrosse rape case charges and giving the prosecutor, Durham County District Attorney Michael Nifong, a public dressing-down. If he has an Achilles heel, it may be the crime lab under his jurisdiction, which has experienced a series of confidence-testing scandals. If the right Republican rides this issue right, Cooper could be vulnerable.
Oregon (Democratic-held). The only factor that keeps Oregon from safe Democratic on our list is that the GOP had a pretty good year in Oregon in 2010, forcing the state House into a tie, coming within one seat of a majority in the Senate and narrowly losing the gubernatorial race. Still, first-term Democratic Attorney General John Kroger should be able to win reelection in 2012. In 2008, he actually managed to snag the Republican ballot line as well as the Democratic line thanks to write-in votes. If no top-tier GOP opponent emerges this cycle, this one will probably shift to safe Democratic.
Vermont (Democratic-held). Assuming he wants it, Democrat William Sorrell should win a ninth two-year term with ease in 2012.